We’re Lauren and Teddy, the overrated and jaded (respectively) of our column’s title. Though neither of us has any formal critic training, we both share an intense love of movies, and an even greater love of arguing about them with each other.
Today we’re debating Shame, the 2011 indie by Steve McQueen about a man struggling with his sex addiction, but perhaps most famous for the numerous displays of actor Michael Fassbender’s penis. Unsurprisingly, we fall on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to our reactions.
Lauren: Shame on you for liking Shame. But actually, why do you like it so much? We’ve already established that it actually put me to sleep while I watched it … Honestly, my overall feeling from it wasn’t even icky or disgusted, more just like it felt so self-indulgent. It was gorgeous, the cinematography was very evocative, but the whole thing just felt moody for the sake of being moody.
Teddy: The way the film was shot and paced reflected the plight of our pathetic protagonist. Those drawn out, “sleep-inducing” scenes were, to me, illustrative of Brandon’s world-view, one that has been tainted by an addiction. Life moves slowly, he knows the game and all the rules; he’s uncovered everything about human sexuality and exploited it to the point of meaninglessness. His addiction becomes existential, and eroticism fades into ennui. In a movie that, in the hands of a lesser director, would be over-sexualized and focused on the eroticism of the bodies in action (the very type of thing that Brandon is victim to), we are instead confronted with drawn out sequences depicting Brandon’s pain and desperation, and in that we may recognize our own empty drives (whether sexual or social or whatever). In this way, Shame critiques our society’s over-indulgences, whether pornographic or cinematic (i.e., Hollywood’s obsession with sentimental dramas and blockbusters … perhaps the subject of a later debate) and warns us of the consequences.
Lauren: I thought that in terms of a character study, the film had the beginnings of excellence. He’s an interesting character, with an interesting problem …except that no one ever really tries to figure out where that problem comes from. I’m not saying that I need a direct explanation of the origins of sex addiction, but if I am to believe that Brandon really feels “Shame” from his actions, then I can’t help but wish I could understand a bit more about where this comes from. I agree that the movie is largely from his vantage point, his “addiction becomes existential, and eroticism fades into ennui”, and that all is a great place to begin. But for me, I wanted something beyond that emptiness to cling to, to make me have at least a sliver of understanding for this man.
I think my biggest problem was that overall, it left me cold. For something as complex and layered as the script attempts to be, why wasn’t I devastated for myself, society, or even Brandon? I’m not suggesting we get a whole backstory, or a monologue explaining his relationship to Sissy. And it’s a matter of directorial choice … the movie is gorgeous, shot in the sterile blues and grays that left me feeling cold. And maybe that’s what McQueen was aiming for, numbing me as an audience member the way Brandon has become numbed. But as an audience member, it also left me asking, why bother then?
Teddy: To me, Brandon stands for where I see our society going, a society that is haunted by the threat of over-indulgence, where pleasure is only a few button clicks away. We have grown up in a world where EVERYTHING is at our fingertips, so Brandon’s sex-addiction is both indicative of that as well as illustrative of a sort of desperation for real human contact. It’s tough because the answers aren’t laid out for us in dramatic confrontations or monologues (for instance, what is Brandon’s relationship with his sister? There is clearly a shared trauma that is never spoken), and we are forced to identify with a hollow antihero, a man who embodies the terrifying possibility of what happens to those of us who over-indulge in the easily-accessible pleasures of our time.